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After Kim Jong-il

DENVER – In one sense, the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il changes everything. It is by no means clear, for example, that Kim’s coddled youngest son, Kim Jong-un – now hailed as the “Great Successor,” but singularly unprepared to lead – will ultimately succeed his father in anything but name.

Working in Kim Jong-un’s favor is his striking resemblance to his grandfather, Kim Il-song, who, strangely, held a certain charisma for North Koreans. Looks aside, Kim III will need a lot of help; in the meantime, we can expect further consolidation by the Korean People’s Army of its leadership of the country. Even more than in the past, we must expect the unexpected in North Korea. Above all, the West must work closely with China. In that sense, nothing has changed. 

Any conversation with Chinese officials nowadays leads to the same conclusion: China wants to restart the Six-Party Talks aimed at persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear-weapons program. The problem is that, despite commitment to the talks from all six participants – China, the United States, South Korea, Japan, Russia, and even North Korea in recent months (a nominal pledge that is unlikely to be changed as a result of Kim Jong-il’s passing) – the results so far are insufficient to sustain the process.

Reenergizing the talks will require renewed focus on taking steps to achieve their ends. Unfortunately, China, the party with the greatest leverage over North Korea, seems least committed to doing what is required.